The following is a summary of Chapter 4 of my new book, Intelligent Accountability.

What stops us from taking the risk and trusting teachers is, in part, the very real fear that some will cut corners, take shortcuts and slack off. But it is also a product of the deficit model: misguided approaches to enforcing ‘best practice’ and the perceived need to hold teachers and schools to account for meeting key performance indicators. To mediate against these pressures, we put accountability systems in place. The point of accountability is to increase trust: the more information we have on what teachers are doing, the more we should be able to trust that they are teaching effectively, or if they’re not, to intervene and make sure they either improve or quit.

It’s not good enough to blame individuals: school leaders are products of the same system, the same culture of fear and compliance as are teachers. If we’re ever to sculpt a system in which teachers are supported, it needs to be one in which head teachers enjoy the same benefits. Within the current system, if school leaders allow teachers take risks, accountability falls, with a leaden clang, on the head teacher. We have created a system in which there are inexorable institutional pressures to blame, seek excuses, conceal mistakes and pass the buck. No one can thrive in a system like this.

Although these pressures appear to originate with increasingly draconian governmental oversight, ultimately they are what we have collectively decided is the best way to hold each other to account. So, rather than trusting schools and teachers, we regularly check and measure their performance in the hope that this continual disruption and distraction – the equivalent of pulling up a plant by the roots to check it’s growing – will somehow help matters.

The need for accountability

Unless we believe ourselves to be socially accountable, we are likely to put more effort into looking good than being good: what others think of us is more important than what we think of ourselves. We’re only likely to display the right kind of character traits when we’re held accountable for our behaviour by, as Adam Smith put it, an “impartial spectator”. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith argued that morality emerges through a human desire to get on with others. When they’re born, children know nothing of morality but discover, through trial and error, which behaviours are considered acceptable and which aren’t, resulting in “a mutual sympathy of sentiments”. Most of us conform to social norms, and what is accepted quickly become acceptable. The rather uncomfortable truth is that morality stems from accountability.

Jennifer Lerner and Phil Tetlock define accountability as the “explicit expectation that one will be called on to justify one’s beliefs, feelings, or actions to others … and implies that positive or negative consequences hinge on the acceptability of one’s justification”. Without some kind of accountability we are more inclined to cheat or slacken. This is human nature. If no one is watching or interested, then we are much more likely to be selfish and lazy, and more likely to rely on snap judgements rather than carefully thinking things through.

But there are predictable problems with holding people accountable, especially in a deficit model system. Poor accountability is liable to result in compliance, resentment, powerlessness and self-justification. As Lerner and Tetlock put it, “accountability is not a cognitive cure-all for lazy or unresponsive workers” and “only highly specialized subtypes of accountability lead to increased effort.” When accountability pressures are askew, ‘looking good’ is preferred to ‘being good’

How can we get accountability right? By comparing the results of each various different conditions, accountability is most likely to lead to positive behaviours and improved performance when:

  1. We know we will be accountable to an audience before we are judged or commit to a course of action.
  2. The audience’s views are unknown.
  3. We believe the audience is well informed and interested in accuracy.

When these conditions are met, people tend to do the right thing. This is intelligent accountability.

1. We must know we will be accountable before we are judged

The knowledge that someone – anyone – is aware of what we’re doing changes what we deem to be acceptable. When we know we’ll have to explain or justify our actions, we are much more likely to reflect self-critically, consider multiple perspectives, anticipate objections made by ‘reasonable others’ and revise our beliefs in response to evidence.

But, if we only find out we were accountable after the fact, trust is eroded. For accountability to feel fair, it must be preannounced; suddenly pitching up in someone’s classroom with a clipboard and a stern glare only makes them feel like you’re out to persecute them. The gotcha culture of unannounced learning walks can have a toxic effect on the trust necessary for teachers to thrive.

2. The audience’s views must be unknown

In a hierarchical system, if everyone knows what the boss likes, she’ll only be shown what she wants to see. If we look for evidence of our preferences, the best outcome is that we’ll find what we were looking for. If those in authority predefine what good looks like and hold us to account for meeting a set of standards, we will give the appearance of meeting those standards. This results in equally undesirable outcomes:

  • Compliance. Some people will just do whatever they are told to do. Some will do it well, some will give the impression of doing it well and others will struggle. They will assume managers know best and try hard to please them.
  • Pretence. Some people will feel they know better and assume managers are foolish or corrupt. They will sometimes give the appearance of playing the game but will, as far as possible, ignore the accountability process.
  • Conflict. If teachers are particularly contrarian, they may even deliberately emphasise lack of compliance to highlight their independence from ‘management’.

Some of those who are successfully compliant will feel pretty good about being able to meet managers’ demands, but everyone else will experience a combination of failure, guilt, fear and resentment. None of these emotions are particularly useful for helping individuals to grow and progress. The bitterest irony, though, is that even when these accountability systems appear to be successful, they promote a lack of curiosity and blind adherence to a set of partially understood principles and a mentality of being forced to jump through hoops. We lose the ability to make considered professional judgements and embark on ‘cargo cult’ teaching – following the forms and structures of teaching but without understanding the underpinning theory or science.15 Managers who prefer uncritical staff reveal their own insecurities and weaknesses; you might not like teachers asking awkward questions, but this shows both that they care and are independent thinkers, something that we profess to believe is important in learning.

This model has a built-in insufficiency and goal displacement effect because it privileges compliance over expertise. Therefore, the collective of the organisation is diminished; decisions are not grounded in honesty and lack expertise and realism. Collective knowledge and responsibility are weakened and the weight of decisional capital rests on the narrow cliff edge of the leader’s preferences. Instead of looking for our preferences to be met, if we look at what teachers are doing, sometimes we’ll learn things we would never have expected.

3. We must believe the audience is well informed and interested in accuracy

Accountability needs to be seen as fair. Most teachers understand the need to be accountable for the performance of the students in their classes. They are, understandably, more reluctant to be held accountable for the student who never attends their lessons. Effective accountability needs to be reasonable and honest.

Unless we believe those holding us to account are interested in accuracy, rather than simply having their preferences met, we tend to become fearful, cynical and risk-averse. If those in authority are not considered trustworthy, the system starts to break down. This is exactly what happens when school leaders believe they’re dealing with a ‘rogue’ inspector; accountability becomes a game where school leaders are forced into the role of recalcitrant children, hiding their perceived shortcomings, made to feel ashamed of failure, and desperately trying to prove their worth in a system that appears to lack honesty and therefore validity. This means that all our cognitive bandwidth is taken up with persuading others that we’ve made the right choice instead of trying to be our best.

Similarly, if teachers don’t trust that school leaders are knowledgeable and genuinely interested in improving outcomes over the long term, they will be forced into the same game of cat and mouse. When we decide we know better than classroom teachers how they ought to teach their classes, we inevitably end up doing something foolish and ignoring the collective knowledge of the organisation. Instead, we should always ask teachers to talk about the reasons for the decisions they’ve made, and then listen. Often, teachers’ explanations reveal things we might not have guessed. If explanations are plausible then teachers should be trusted; if they don’t they may need additional support. School leaders should ask teachers what they think needs to be done, what support they need to make these things happen and then hold them to account for doing whatever they’ve said they should do.

Trust vs. accountability

There are some who have the misguided belief that any attempt to hold teachers accountable for their performance is wrong. Trust, they say, is the vital ingredient. Others will argue that we need robust systems in place to make sure that everyone is doing their job and that no one is shirking their duty. These extremes can cause us to see trust and accountability as polar opposites:

On the face of it, trust and accountability may well seem to be dichotomous. Arguments polarise because the most interesting thinking often happens at the extremes. The middle ground is exactly that: the bland merger of two competing approaches where efforts to bestow trust and monitor performance end up cancelling each other out. The answer is rarely in the middle, but it can come from the integration of apparent opposites.

My suggestion is that we bend these competing concerns back on themselves to be held in creative tension:

Teachers – and school leaders – do need to be held to account for their decisions, but it’s also true that both teachers and school leaders need the freedom to experiment and innovate if they are to be their best. We can combine the best of both of these extremes by holding teachers and school leaders to account for what they have said they will do instead of checking they are complying with what someone else thinks is right.

For an overview of the rest of the book, click here.